Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino

Music and Dance > Yámana

The music of the Yámana, like that of all the indigenous peoples of Tierra del Fuego, was characterized by the absence of all musical instruments except the voice, which sang unaccompanied. Yámana music consisted mainly of repetitive chants intoning short phrases describing the natural world. On occasion, objects such as animal hides and wooden sticks were used to produce sounds, and even less frequently a duck esophagus was used as a whistle. None of these instruments have been discovered, however.

Chanting reached its highest form in male initiation ceremonies, in which participants represented native animal species by body painting, dance and repetitive movements and songs. Each animal, geographic feature and element of nature had its own chant, which was performed to make contact with that entity and invoke the relationship of reciprocity necessary to achieve balance between the human world and the natural one. As the southernmost indigenous people in the world, the Yámana lived in a cold, stormy, remote and harsh environment. But they considered it both beautiful and challenging, awe-inspiring and powerful. The natural world was their constant companion, the point of reference for how to live in the territory. The Yámana’s music reflected the close ties they had forged with the land after thousands of years inhabiting the territory, developing a culture that had disappeared almost before we came to know it. When the initiation ceremony was banned in 1976, the Yagan (the other name by which these people are known) culture disappeared and the songs of the world’s southernmost people were silenced forever.